I PEER THROUGH THE FRONT WINDOW OF A CARPET store on an unremarkable block of Sepulveda Boulevard in Culver City. In the '50s, my father's drugstore -- Edwards Rexall Pharmacy -- was located here. The business had the name when he bought it; we never did find out who Edwards was. Next door was Rose Vine's beauty salon, where, each Saturday, loving hands styled my mom's pageboy or bouffant. Next to the beauty salon was the Cinema Bar, where by 2 p.m. you could and still can see the regulars hunkered over their beers. Next to the bar is the Villa Italian, recently renovated, where in the late '50s Mr. Alfano's beautiful daughters served us platefuls of spaghetti and meatballs on red-checked tablecloths. The block is now a hodgepodge of old and new: fast food, VCR repair, a sushi bar, Holiday Inn Express. The most noteworthy feature is the entrance to the San Diego Freeway.
Since returning to Los Angeles from the Bay Area 10 years ago, I've rarely ventured back to where I grew up. As a teenager in the 1960s, all I could think about was getting out of what felt like a boring little town. But for my parents, postwar Culver City was a kind of paradise. A small community where they could get involved. Good schools. Safe streets. An ocean breeze to break the summer heat.
In a black-and-white snapshot, my parents -- Norman and Anne Steinman -- stand behind the pharmacy counter. He's dapper in his white druggist's smock. She wears a shirtwaist dress and pearls. Behind the smiling couple, a sign -- OPEN SUNDAY 9 A.M. TO 9 P.M. -- testifies to my father's impossibly long hours. Displays of Ace combs and Gillette razors, Crest toothpaste, laxatives and a zany pair of giant cardboard spectacles with the phrase "Look to Us!" surround them. They'd followed my father's parents west from New York City after my father was demobilized from the Army in 1946, eager to raise their anticipated brood in the bright California light. Dad attended USC pharmacy school on the G.I. Bill. Mom ran the house until the youngest of her four kids was junior-high age, then embarked on a 20-year career as a Head Start teacher.
Edwards Pharmacy was the kind of place where it was okay to hang out. The regulars parked themselves in the chrome armchairs by the back counter, comparing their malaises. Those without prescriptions consulted with "Doc" Steinman. He recommended tranquilizers for the nervous rabbi, Kaopectate for the wife of the high school principal, Vi-Daylin to pep up Mr. Alfano. One large extended family, including new arrivals from Kiev and Buenos Aires, received discounts on aspirin, cosmetics, antibiotics.
At home at night, Dad ordered from the McKesson distributor, chanting those magical words into the phone: "one only phenobarb, two only Doriden, four only Librium, one dozen Penbritin, four ounces paregoric." He believed in drugs, doling out Preludin to my dieting sister, Benadryl to my mom and Ritalin to me when I needed to pull an all-nighter for European History finals. If you felt sick, you were expected to "take something." If you refused to help yourself, my father would cross his arms, sigh, pause for effect and grumble, "Then suffer." It always worked.
The man had an uncanny ability to reduce any situation to its pharmaceutical implications. In 1988, surveying my wedding site in Topanga Canyon, he noted the blooming chaparral and soberly proclaimed, "Everyone will need Seldane."
We all worked in the store at one time or another. My younger brother delivered prescriptions in the red Corvair, dreading the nursing homes where arms reached out to touch him. My older brother distracted IRS auditors with offers of Hershey bars and Eskimo Pies, and he often worked the front counter. "When men wanted to buy condoms, they used a signal," he recalls. "Two fingers on the counter, like legs apart." For her part, my sister wrapped boxes of Kotex sanitary napkins in plain brown paper before displaying them on the shelves. Reticence and modesty were the era's reigning virtues.
My after-school job was counting pills from large brown bottles into smaller dark bottles in the back room. I'd commandeer a Heath bar from the candy display, a pile of comics from the magazine rack. I'd munch, read a page, count a hundred tablets. Take another bite, read another page, count another hundred. I especially liked biblical comics, like Solomon and Sheba, or Spartacus, characters forever linked in my memory with the smell of vitamin B.